[This book review article was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 80-98.]




Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream

Gregg Jones

New American Library, 2012


Relevant Today: Lessons from the Spanish-American War

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired


The United States, between 1898 and 1913, actually fought three wars under the rubric of what is most often thought of as “the Spanish-American war.”  One was the war with Spain, the second a war to defeat the Filipino independence movement, and the third a war to subdue the Muslim population in the southern Philippines.  Honor in the Dust is an account, by a journalist who is also an historian, of all three, but with primary emphasis on the second, the Philippine-American War.  We have expanded what would otherwise be a book review into a longer article because the experience of those wars raises provocative issues that have continuing relevance to American foreign policy, especially in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  A point of particular importance will be that a war to suppress guerrillas fighting with the support of a civilian population ought to be understood, in advance of undertaking the war, as one in which extreme brutality is almost certainly bound to be a feature.  The argument will be made that that fact should always be taken into account in deciding whether to launch such a war.


              Key Words: Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, Gregg Jones, Honor in the Dust, American colonialism, global meliorism, U.S. anti-imperialists, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, brutality in war, the “water cure,” effectiveness of torture, Emilio Aguinaldo, Philippine independence movement, reconcentrados, reconcentration camps.


          It is probably fair to surmise that if asked about what buildings collapsed in New York City as part of the events on 9/11, most Americans would answer “two, the twin towers of the World Trade Center that were hit by airplanes.”  They would not be aware of the collapse of a third skyscraper, 47-story World Trade Center Building 7, later on the same day.  In much the same vein, it is likely that most Americans, if asked about the Spanish-American War more than a century ago, would know of the United States’ quick victory over Spain, but would either have forgotten or never really known about the second war that followed in the aftermath of that victory – the 1899-1902 war for the suppression of the Philippine independence movement led by Emilio Aguinaldo (or, for that matter, the third war – the one against the Muslim population on the southern Philippine islands that lasted until 1913 and that is known as the Moro Rebellion).  

          Although Honor in the Dust tells about each of these conflicts, the protracted guerrilla warfare of the second receives most of its attention.  The author, Gregg Jones, is both a journalist and a meticulous historical researcher.  His attention was attracted to the war’s history while he was a foreign correspondent in the Philippines from 1984 to 1989 “chronicling the death throes of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.”  His fast-paced narrative never gets bogged down in an academic recital of sources, but his endnotes reveal that he dug deeply into a variety of archives and rather exhaustively into sources that go beyond anything we might expect.[1] 

          Jones is revisiting a history that has been told many times.  He does not hesitate to rely on those earlier accounts, especially on the work of Brian McAllister Linn, whose two books about the war “became my indispensable references on America’s military struggle in the islands.”[2]  There are, however, good reasons for him to come out with a new book on the subject.

          One of these is that the U.S. experience in the Philippines in fighting a long and frustrating war to suppress a guerrilla movement that was supported by the indigenous population has remarkable contemporary relevance.  We are now in a time of “asymmetrical conflict” when the United States, to the extent it attempts foreign interventions in places like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, faces enemies who do not present themselves for large-unit combat but rather meld with the population. 

          A second reason is, at least in the opinion of this reviewer, even more important.  It is that the Philippine-American War, told about in detail by Jones, illustrates folly of two sorts: (1) the immensely significant redirection of American policy of caring-about-but-not-intervening-in the affairs of other nations (which had been the American policy, subject to a few inconsistencies, prior to 1898) to one that started as imperial colonization and soon morphed into a general global meliorism.  A result has been that today almost any problem in the world that comes to Americans’ attention is commonly considered a clarion call for the United States to take action of one sort or another.  Many Americans, of course, will not agree that this change was “folly” (although they may agree that it has led to several follies), but its pro’s and cons are an immense subject to which we cannot give our attention here.

The second folly is one that pertains to the decision that a country must make, whether consciously or not, in choosing whether to undertake a war where insurgents defend an indigenous population.  This was a decision made in turn, as to the Philippines, by Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, with the concurrence of the U.S. Congress.  It is important to note that in the Philippines the independence movement that fought the Americans was not an appendage forced on the people, but instead was an expression of their national feeling.  Major General Arthur MacArthur, who became the commander of the American forces in April 1900, wrote that “when I first started… I did not like to believe that the whole population of Luzon… was opposed to us, but… I have been reluctantly compelled to believe that the Filipino masses are loyal to Aguinaldo [the leader of the independence movement] and the government which he leads” [our emphasis].[3]    

If such a war becomes ghastly in its brutality on both sides, the primary cause lies in the decision to fight it, which ought to be made only if there are compelling reasons to conclude that the war, even with its brutality, is essential.  Those who are called upon to do the fighting become the unfortunate instruments of that brutality.  Although under the circumstances they themselves almost always act “excessively” in what they do, they are most appropriately to be seen as among the victims of the decision to go into a war in which “no quarter” will almost have to be the norm on the side of the defending forces and even more assuredly on the side of the outside country (if it is to prevail).  

It is to be expected that the “insurgents” [a semantic that reflects the point of view of the outside power] will seek and obtain sustenance from the civilian population, and will blend in with it as indeed a part of it, while at the same time considering anyone who aids or works with the outsider a traitor.  This means that the defenders will seek to maintain their standing within the civilian population by a combination of natural affinity and terror.  Although the latter of these will seem abhorrent to outsiders, a moment’s thought tells us that a passionate punishment of “disloyal turncoats” is precisely what any population defending itself against outside attack will do.

To overcome all this, the outside power will, unless the circumstances are unusual (such as, for example, where the indigenous population is torn by conflict within itself as it has been in Iraq), have to break the will of that population, as Jones’ recital tells us was done in the Philippines, removing the desire to shelter those fighting for it and simultaneously making it possible for those who work with the outside power to do so without retribution.  “Breaking the will” of a people, though easy to say, is something fraught with horrors – not horrors in the abstract, but specific butcheries that have to be committed by the officers and men who have been sent to do the job.  As one would expect, much of Honor in the Dust focuses on which officers and men were responsible for any given atrocity.  While important to the narrative and to the way that sort of war is usually perceived, such a focus misses the point we are making now, which is that the inevitability of atrocities needed to have been a very significant deterrent to the political decision, by the president and the Congress, to launch the war in the first place. The responsibility of the actual actors in the field should be seen as secondary, not primary. This is not to say that those at the scene who actively commit the atrocities should have no accountability for them; but it is to say that their responsibility should be considered mitigated by the fact that they have been assigned an inherently brutal task.[4]  This may in part explain the “slaps on the wrist” given by courts martial in the Philippine-American War that we will refer to later.

In the Philippines, just as a century later in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States sought militarily to win such a war by simultaneous military suppression and humanitarian reconstruction.  This is a particularly confused strategy, not only because millions or even billions of dollars’ worth of reconstruction funds are inefficiently spent or even wasted when the work takes place while war rages around it, but because it conveys a schizophrenic moral message: “We’re here to help, but we’re going to have to kill a great many of you to get you to accept that.”  This moral ambiguity becomes especially telling when, because of it, combat forces are enjoined “not to kill civilians” even though the “insurgents” are mixed in with those civilians.  Such an injunction puts the counterinsurgency troops in a situation of being handcuffed, much to their peril as they often fight door to door,[5] and goes far toward negating the ability to break the population’s will to continue fighting.  The morally confused strategy appeals to the sentimentality of a public that wants both war and the doing of good, but that sentimentality fails to understand what it has gotten its country into.

With these things in mind, it is time to consider what Jones tells us in Honor in the Dust (supplementing it, as we will, with other sources):    

1.  A preference for war over reconciliation.  It seems that the United States was in unseemly haste to go to war with Spain.  There were a number of prominent individuals who became known as the “anti-imperialists”[6] and who argued forcefully for the traditional non-interventionist policy, but the mentality of most Americans had changed.  There had always been a “strong millenarian countercurrent in American religious and secular thought,” according to historian Walter McDougall,[7] so it didn’t take much to produce the transformation.[8]  The late nineteenth century was the high-point of the European colonial spirit, as we know from the “scramble for Africa,” and this helped influence the American zeitgeist.  The Hearst newspapers and other media beat the drums of war incessantly.  President McKinley protested publicly that he wasn’t anxious for conquest, but a handwritten note by him discovered years later shows that his private thoughts were otherwise.[9]

Spain had been fighting an indigenous independence movement in its Cuban colony, outraging Americans with what they saw as inexcusable brutality, including the herding of civilians into “reconcentrados” (“reconcentration camps”) to separate them from the insurgents.[10]  Estimates of the number of people who died from starvation or disease vary greatly, but it is clear that it was several thousand.    The causes for this outrage were diminished, however, after the Spanish premier was assassinated on August 8, 1897, because this event ushered in the Spanish Liberal Party, which favored a policy that pledged Canadian-style autonomy for Cuba.  The much-hated Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was removed from command and the camp system ended.  Historian David Haward Bain says that “to these reforms [U.S. President] McKinley had nothing to say,” and that McKinley went ahead with a war message to the U.S. Congress despite further conciliatory efforts by Spain.[11] 

An historical comparison is in order here.  McKinley’s rejection of Spain’s peace efforts reminds us of the similar treatment given to liberal governments in Japan by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, respectively, before and at the end of World War II.  This is a subject we covered in our Spring 2012 book review article about Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of World War II.[12]  Both in the early autumn of 1941(i.e., shortly before the war) and the spring of 1945 (shortly before the end of the war), Prince Konoye, a “civilian anti-militarist,” headed the Japanese government, and sought peace with the United States.  When Roosevelt spurned Konoye’s efforts, “power passed to Tojo’s militaristic faction,” leading on to war; and in April, 1945, “the Emperor substituted a group of civilian anti-militarists [headed once more by Konoye] for the militarist ministry” – but again Konoye’s overtures for peace were rejected.  Those who want a more detailed explication will do well to read our article, or preferably Hoover’s book itself.[13]

2.   American suzerainty preferred over Filipino independence.  The United States enjoyed a quick victory over Spain in Cuba.  Although this ostensibly fulfilled the desire of the American public to free Cuba from  Spanish rule, the new colonial spirit carried the United States far beyond this limited objective.  The 1898 Treaty of Paris resulted in the cession to the United States not just of Cuba, but also of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and parts of the West Indies.  Early success in the Philippines quickly expanded into a desire to put down the indigenous independence movement that Aguinaldo had begun two years earlier, in mid-1896.

Jones tells us that Commodore George Dewey, commander of the American squadron that defeated the Spanish in Manila Bay, “later denied Aguinaldo’s claim that he had pledged support for an independent Philippine republic in return” for Filipinos’ joining in the fighting against Spain’s land forces.  But this denial doesn’t ring true.  In 1898, Aguinaldo was in exile in Hong Kong.  Dewey caused his “return to the Philippines on a U.S. vessel” and then “sent the revolutionary leader ashore with weapons and instructions to attack Spanish forces…  While Dewey watched and waited, Aguinaldo’s army surrounded Manila and captured key towns on Luzon and outlying islands.”  This success, working in league with the United States, occurred before American ground forces reached the Philippines.  Aguinaldo had received a letter from the U.S. Consul in Hong Kong: “Do not forget that the United States undertook this war for the sole purpose of relieving the Cubans from the cruelties [of Spain]… and not for the love of conquests or the hope of gain.  They are actuated by precisely the same feelings for the Filipinos.”[14] It would seem that Aguinaldo had every reason to think that in working with Dewey he was serving Filipino, and not just American, purposes.

After the American Army arrived, relations began amicably, but soon became hostile.  “At first Aguinaldo shared maps and intelligence with the Americans and allowed U.S. soldiers to pass through his lines to reconnoiter Spanish positions.”  He “became wary,” however, as the size of the American force grew beyond what would be necessary to complete the victory over the Spanish.  Newly-arrived General Wesley Merritt “rejected personal dealings with Aguinaldo” and proceeded with an offense of his own, holding secret talks with the Spanish for their surrender.  Jones says “Filipino forces tried to join the attack and were rebuffed by U.S. troops.”   Storey and Lichauco recount that as hostilities developed [and an incident occurred that the American authorities blamed on the Filipinos], Aguinaldo “sent a member of his staff under a flag of truce” to the U.S. commanding general, Major General Elwell Otis, asking that a neutral zone be created to keep the American and Filipino armies apart.  Otis rejected this, saying that the fighting, now that it had started, “must go on ‘to the grim end.’”  Jones adds that “Otis… never even bothered to meet Aguinaldo.”  This was in compliance with President McKinley’s own decision not to settle with Aguinaldo, but to press on with war.  Blaming the Filipinos, McKinley said “The first blow was struck by the inhabitants.  They assailed our sovereignty and there will be no useless parley, no pause, until the insurrection is suppressed and American authority acknowledged and established.”[15] This was followed by an American attack in which 3,000 Filipinos were killed.[16]  A diplomatic representative of the Aguinaldo government, Felipe Agoncillo, was sent to Washington to see President McKinley, but received brusque treatment from the American president.  According to Jones, McKinley then “rejected [the diplomat’s] request for Filipino representation at the peace talks [with Spain] in Paris.”  Agoncillo went to Paris anyway, and filed “a strongly worded protest with the peace commission.”  He was not allowed to take part in the ceremony that marked the end of  “Spain’s three centuries of dominion over the Philippines,” despite the understandably great significance of this ceremony to the Filipinos themselves.

The fighting escalated into a conflict in which Aguinaldo called for a “war without quarter” and Otis insisted on “unconditional surrender.”  It was fought as a conventional war between opposing units until late in 1899, when Aguinaldo, having suffered major losses in that sort of combat, changed his strategy to a guerrilla war “without fronts or fixed positions” in which his fighters “would blend in with villagers.”  This was what today is called “asymmetrical warfare.”

The Americans captured Aguinaldo in March 1901, causing him to issue a proclamation calling upon Filipinos to accept U.S. rule.  Vicious fighting continued on the island of Samar [the Philippines’ third-largest island], however, with the Americans using a scorched-earth strategy to starve the population into submission.  In September, “the massacre of Balangiga” occurred when in the southern town of that name guerrillas emerged from disguise and attacked the American garrison, killing 48 American soldiers. The new American president, Theodore Roosevelt, who had taken office after McKinley’s assassination, ordered the resistance crushed.  We are told that “armed resistance to American rule… effectively ended by the summer of 1902.”  A separate war (the “Moro Rebellion”), not related to the efforts by Aguinaldo to establish a Philippine Republic, was fought for several years, from 1901 to 1913, to establish American control over the Muslim population in the southern islands, the principal of which was Mindanao.

3.  The war’s brutality.  The fact that the war was conducted on both sides with great cruelty is what prompted our earlier reflections about the inherent nature of such a conflict. 

Most of the authors who have written about the war have been sympathetic to the Filipinos, which probably accounts for a lack of attention to cruelties committed on the Filipino side.  Nevertheless, Jones tells about the assassination of those who collaborated with the Americans.  This takes on graphic imagery when he says that a revolutionary committee was established in each town, forming company-sized fighting units: “One such company in Ilocos Sur killed about thirty americanistas around Vigan in 1900.  Operating secretly at night… [they seized collaborators who were] forced to kneel at the edge of a grave dug by other team members, then stabbed to death with swords and bolos and buried.” 

Their fighting with the Americans was such as to cause one American general to speak of “the inbred treachery of these people,” and Jones says “the U.S. soldiers blamed their Filipino adversaries for setting the tone.  Enemy troops were accused of firing on ambulance litter bearers and Red Cross workers, and were said to continue fighting after raising white flags.”[17] 

It is pertinent to what we discussed earlier that those fighting the war on the American side, such as the general who thought in terms of Filipino “treachery,” were caught up in the same foreshortened perspective that we have mentioned: a failure to see that everyone on the scene, on both sides, was acting a role in a war of a kind in which great cruelty was bound to occur.  But it would be almost surreal to expect the combatants to see things with that sort of detachment.

          Jones and the many other authors about the war don’t hesitate to give countless examples of American brutality.  What was done was consistent with Theodore Roosevelt’s recommendation “to smash the insurgents in every way until they are literally beaten into peace.” Jones says that “historian Brian Linn… has noted that the first weeks of American operations around Manila revealed ‘clear evidence of troop misconduct, brutality, criminal activity, and atrocities….’ Soldiers fired indiscriminately on civilians and summarily executed prisoners.”  It’s an odd thing for a general to be outraged when an enemy resists, but Jones tells us that “infuriated by the stiff resistance he encountered at the town of Taguig, [Brigadier General Lloyd] Wheaton ordered his men to burn houses and fields for several miles along the lake road.”  As guerrilla attacks increased, the American forces adopted “an ethos of reprisal”: “enemy attacks, ambushes and assassinations were routinely punished by burning houses or entire villages, destroying crops and livestock, and torturing suspects.”  Incongruously, Jones speaks of “an official policy of benevolence,” and we know that reconstruction efforts were being made concurrently with the war, but the war against the guerrillas took precedence in the minds of those doing the actual fighting.  After Captain Edwin Forbes Glenn ordered the town of Igbarras burned, “fewer than twenty of the five hundred structures remained standing.”  Seventy-nine guerrillas were taken to Guam and hanged after trial by military courts.  When resistance peaked on the island of Samar, General Robert Hughes adopted a strategy of “starving the island into submission.” 

          The war against the Muslims in the southern Philippines saw similar horrors.  “In late February 1906, on the island of Sulu,” Jones says, “one thousand Muslim tribesmen revolted against the local leadership installed by the Americans… In four days of operations, U.S. soldiers killed every last one of the Muslims – men, women and children.  Twenty soldiers died in the fighting.”  U.S. governor Leonard Wood explained the killing of women and children, indicating that the children had been used as shields and that the women had fought alongside the men.

          Something that receives a lot of attention in the literature, as it should, is General Jacob Smith’s order, given to Major Tony Waller on Samar, to “kill all persons who are capable of bearing arms… All over ten years of age.”  Whether such an order was in fact given is resolved by Smith’s own testimony later admitting that he had.[18]  There is considerable indication in Jones’ narrative that the order was not literally carried out (even though there was much bloodshed).  Waller testified that he had told his deputy to ignore the order.  (We will note later that the order was given in connection with enforcing an order given to the civilian population to congregate in designated resettlement areas.)

          One of the better known features of the war was the use, by both sides, of a form of torture known as “the water cure.”  This, of course, is relevant to the use of “waterboarding” in the post-9/11 “war against terror.”  The Macabebe ethnic group, fighting with the Americans against the dominant Tagalogs, taught it to the Americans, and had in turn learned it from the Spanish.  Jones says “the ‘strangling torments’ of torture by water had been perfected during the Spanish Inquisition, when it was forbidden by the Catholic Church to… inflict permanent injury during questioning."  The torture worked this way: the person subject to it was placed below a tank (or other source) of water, his mouth forced open, the spigot turned on, and water poured down his throat until his stomach “became as hard as a drum,” at which time “the soldiers pounded his midsection with their fists,” forcing “water and gastric juices to erupt from his mouth and nose.”  This was repeated until the person gave the desired information.  A court martial found Major Edwin Glenn guilty of “violating the laws of war” by his extensive use of this torture on the island of Panay [which indicates official disapproval of it], but the punishment was minor, amounting to a one-month suspension from duty and a fine of $50 [and this points the other way, toward a wink of condonation].  A lieutenant received a three-month suspension and $150 forfeiture of pay. 

          Despite the outrage the American public had felt about the Spanish use of “reconcentrado” camps in Cuba, the Americans fighting in the Philippines (and the British in the Boer War going on at the same time) adopted the same tactic for separating the guerrillas from their supportive civilian population.  Jones speaks of camps in Batangas province on Luzon and on Samar, but tells little about them.  The use of such camps is explained, however, by Storey and Lichauco in their book on the war, where they say “reconcentration… means the establishment of a certain prescribed zone or place where the people of a district may be herded together… All persons found outside that zone are then treated as public enemies... Such a method of putting down a rebellion is naturally attended with great hardships.  Crops are left to ruin, homes are deserted….”[19]  From the same authors’ account, it would appear that General Smith’s “kill everybody over the age of ten” order, which we discussed above, was given in relation to Filipinos who had not come in to the coastal towns that he had declared reconcentration areas.  In his proclamation ordering the population to come to the towns, he had warned that “those who were found outside would be shot.”[20]  This casts a different light on the order, shifting attention to the question of how obedience to the reconcentration orders was to be enforced.  The camps were used in various parts of the Philippines, and even by the later civil government governed by William Howard Taft.  We have not seen a discussion in the literature of how enforcement was effected in those many instances.

          4.  Several other thoughts provoked by the war.  It’s not surprising that the Philippine-American War brings to mind several more things to think about.

          It has often been asserted by critics of how the American administrations have conducted the “war against terror” since 9/11 that “torture is both immoral and ineffective.” 

In terms of its morality and the nauseous offense to our sensibilities, no doubt torture is an abomination, taken in itself.  If, however, it is effective to produce information that saves lives, those lives – understood not in the abstract but as actual living human beings – must certainly to be weighed in the balance in evaluating the morality of using it.  The moral question, accordingly, is not easily resolved, but involves a balancing.

The issue of torture’s effectiveness is different from the issue of its morality.  In determining whether torture is “effective,” it is necessary to start by separating wish from fact, what is desired from a “politically correct” standpoint from what the actual reality may be.  In the Philippines, the thinking of those conducting the war on the American side seems to have been that the “water cure” was a source of critical information.  Major General Adna Chaffee, who became the U.S. commander in mid-1901, “defended the use of torture,” Jones tells us, “asserting that victory would not have been achieved ‘had not serious measures been used [to] force disclosure [of] information.’”  Jones himself speaks of the water cure as “a painful procedure that typically produced quick results.”  On the other hand, Mark Twain, one of the anti-imperialists, wrote passionately against the water cure, raising a central question: what would the torture “make them confess?  Truth?  Or lies?  How can one know which it is they are telling?  For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him.”[21]  Both Chaffee’s and Twain’s points are plausible.  Might we not suppose the effectiveness in any given case turns on a number of factors?  One of these might be whether specific information is sought that is in effect verified by being consistent with what the questioners already know or subsequently find out.  The characteristics of the person tortured may well vary the outcome.  Some people may remain adamant against betraying their cause and comrades, and will never be  willing to allow themselves to be coaxed by friendly treatment into doing so, while others may bend eventually if questioned in the reasonable tones that critics of torture argue are most efficacious.  As much as we may regret it, considerations such as these militate against an a priori judgment for or against torture’s effectiveness.

As one reads Honor in the Dust, one can’t help but be reminded of a number of other historical episodes, which we will mention more out of interest than out of a need to analyze them.  One comes up when Jones tells how “Marines laughed and cheered and danced as they tossed their caps in the air” when they were given the news that they were about to ship out to join the fighting in Cuba.  This reviewer had an elderly logic professor years ago who forgot how many times he had told the story of having been in a Munich beer hall at the start of World War I when everybody stood up, raised their steins on high, and shouted “Thank God we have a war at last!”  A second, more serious, parallel comes to mind when Jones tells of President McKinley’s “pledge of ‘benevolent assimilation’ of the Philippines.”  We are reminded that the Potsdam Accords agreed to by the World War II allies in July 1945 called for the expulsion of peoples of Germanic origin from Eastern and Central Europe “in the most humane manner possible.”  As we know, the expulsion was done with extreme brutality (as should have been expected), with estimates of those dying varying from 2.1 million to 6 million.  A third: Jones says that in late 1899 (years before the war ended) Major General Arthur MacArthur “declared victory: ‘The so-called Filipino Republic is destroyed.’”  Who cannot smile at the similarity of this to President George W. Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished” vis a vis Iraq?  And a fourth: The first U.S. commander, Major General Otis, “assured the War Department that he could conquer and hold the Philippines with thirty thousand men.  But in the spring of 1899, he was forced to acknowledge that he would need more troops to destroy Aguinaldo’s army….”  This reminds us of the recent experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan with their need for additional forces under the name of “surges.”  These instances are too limited to allow any hard-and-fast conclusions, but they do cause speculation about whether military planners and political leaders sometimes choose to wear “rose colored glasses” together when deciding to go to war.

The story Jones tells reveals how naïve we may be if we think that military officers are supposed to follow orders from those higher up, take reasonable care for their own safety so as to assure continuity of command, and lead their troops in a manner that does not needlessly throw away the lives of their men.  If we didn’t know how much humanity celebrates bravado, it would seem odd to find stories of officers violating each of these things not only with impunity but with admiration.  Theodore Roosevelt, in his days as a Rough Rider going into Cuba, had little respect for the fact that a certain transport “had been assigned to two other regiments.”  He boarded his own regiment and “refused to budge when the two other units arrived.”  In the Philippines, MacArthur praised “Fighting Fred Funston’s Kansans” as spirited even though they twice “ignored orders to halt.”  As with so much in life, the judgment lies in the outcome; disobeying orders apparently isn’t always an offense against military discipline – most especially if the results are favorable.  So far as officers’ need to take reasonable care for their own safety is concerned, this often takes a back seat to being “dashing” (justified in part by a desire to inspire the troops to take a devil-may-care attitude toward danger).  Jones tells how in Cuba “Rough Rider Captain Bucky O’Neill… strolled the line,” saying “the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me” a few seconds before “a slug… ripped through the back of his head.”  In the Philippines, Brigadier General Henry Lawton was shot and “bled to death in a rice paddy” after “pacing the paddy dikes where his men had sought cover, directing fire and barking orders.”  Jones’ book devotes fascinating pages to the American involvement in the multinational fight against the Boxer Rebellion in China, and tells how Colonel Henry Liscum died there in much the same way.

Sometimes the bravado involves heroic deeds undertaken by an officer out of “animal spirits” for no discernible military or political objective without the slightest regard for the lives of his men.  To those who care about those serving their country, this is appalling in itself.  But this reviewer finds it appalling, too, when there is no ensuing scandal, the officer is even given high praise for his “extraordinarily fine work,” and an historian such as Jones, though presenting the grisly details, finds no reason to view it with alarm.  What we are referring to here is the conduct of Marine Major Littleton Waller, who commanded the forces on southern Samar.  For no apparent purpose other than “an insatiable thirst for glory,” he took an expedition of men through dense jungle, over mountains and cliffs, and across raging rivers during the monsoon season to go overland from the east coast to the southwest side of Samar. Jones says “Waller had done little research for his trek,” and was told “we have no maps at all.”  One of the more gripping parts of Honor in the Dust is Jones’ account of the horrors that befell the men.  With the expedition lost, starving, fevered and exhausted, it became necessary for Waller to take a small group and set off in search for a way out, leaving behind “thirty sick and dying Marines.”  By the time these made it out, ten Marines “sat down in the jungle to await death.”  It was General Jacob Smith who later effusively praised Waller.  Jones tells the story of the debacle, but doesn’t discuss it as a dereliction of duty.

As we read a history, it is interesting to notice how many things an author is not curious or questioning about.  In Honor in the Dust, Jones has covered a lot of ground, and can well be excused for letting some things pass.  Among them may be his acceptance, without batting an eye, of the enormous disparities in casualty counts.  In an early battle in Cuba, in which there was a three-hour fire-fight, it turns out that about sixty Spanish soldiers were killed and 150 wounded, while no Marines were killed and only two wounded.   In the naval battle of Santiago Bay, “only one American died in the fighting, a sailor… decapitated by a Spanish shell.  [The Spanish] lost 323 men killed and 151 wounded.”  Jones describes at length a pitched battle in the Philippines in February 1899: “five hundred Filipino guerrillas… American troops in Tondo were under heavy attack by guerrillas firing from rooftops and walled gardens… American soldiers began fighting their way… house by house and street by street… the Americans set fires to drive snipers from houses.”  The result?  “Once again, American casualties had been remarkably light – only two men killed and twelve wounded.”  We won’t encumber our readers with recitals of the other like reports.  It all reminds us of the old Western movies in which the cowboys and cavalry couldn’t miss, and the Indians could never shoot straight.  Are we expected to have the same “suspension of disbelief” when reading an historical account?

Something that cries out for explanation but that never receives it is what happened to the civilian population during and after the burning of so many villages.  Jones simply says such things as “the village of Hibasen burned to the ground.”  We have already mentioned that when the town of Igbaras was ordered burned, “fewer than twenty of the five hundred structures remained standing.”  If the inhabitants had already moved to a resettlement camp, that would explain where they were.  But no such explanation is given.  It seems that it would be a major question, but it doesn’t pique Jones’ curiosity.  This leaves the account seriously incomplete.


So we conclude by noting that Honor in the Dust isn’t perfect.  Jones may be somewhat more a journalist than an historian.  To say this does not negate, however, the value we have seen in his renewed telling of the conundrums of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.  Perhaps there is some wisdom that we ought to keep in mind in the saying that “those who forget history are bound to repeat it.”



[1] This use of such sources is illustrated by his preparation for discussing the family history and childhood of Marine Major Littleton Waller.  This included consulting “U.S. census records for 1850-1920; various Tidewater Virginia property, probate and tax records; [and] microfilmed copies of four Norfolk, Virginia, newspapers.” 

[2]   These two books are The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902 (University of North Carolina Press, 1989) and The Philippine War: 1899-1902 (University Press of Kansas, 2000) .

[3]  MacArthur’s letter is quoted verbatim in Moorfield Storey and Marcial P. Lichauco, The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, 1898-1925 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926), pp. 102 and 161.

[4]   We know that to say this flies in the face of the Nuremberg rule that “following orders is no excuse.”  If taken simplistically, however, that rule would be nonsense, since the overwhelming imperative of subordinate personnel in military systems throughout the world is, and must be, to follow orders.  It will be a rare case where soldiers can reasonably be expected to have judged for themselves the “illegality” of the orders they receive or of the regime they serve.

[5]     This expectation not to harm civilians is not only a serious military limitation, but, by vastly increasing the danger to the soldiers doing the fighting, is also morally questionable if one thinks in terms of the obligation that a country has to those it calls upon to fight on its behalf.

[6]   The “anti-imperialists” included former president Grover Cleveland, The Nation editor E. L. Godkin, Senator George Hoar, author Mark Twain, Edward Atkinson, George Boutwell, Carl Schurz, Charles Eliot Norton, philosopher William James, Charles Francis Adams, and Andrew Carnegie.  An excellent source about them is Robert L. Beisner’s Twelve Against Empire: the Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968).

[7]   Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1997), p. 11.

[8]   Jones gives an example of this millenarian impulse when he refers to “social evangelist Reverend Josiah Strong’s 1885 book, Our Country, which proclaimed a sacred American duty to civilize and Christianize inferior peoples.”  The philosopher William James thought such a rationale was a mere pretext for much yearned-for adventure, but, even though he may have been right that Americans were excited to be flexing their muscles, his statement seems to overlook the long history of Social Gospel-like sentiment in the United States.  James’ view is given in Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 41.

[9]   For more about McKinley’s note, see David Haward Bain, Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1984), p. 72.

[10]   We will see an explanation of such camps later in our discussion of the details of  the Philippine war, where (despite Americans’ earlier repugnance toward them) the United States’ forces came to use them extensively.

[11]   Bain, Sitting in Darkness, pp. 58, 59, 61.

[12]  Book Review Article, “Herbert Hoover’s ‘Secret History of World War II’ – and Some Reflections it Prompts,” Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2012, pp. 100, 102.  This article can be accessed without charge at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as A107 (i.e., Article 107).

[13]  Herbert Hoover (edited by George H. Nash), Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath (Hoover Institution Press, 2011).

[14]   See Storey and Lichauco, The Conquest of the Philippines, pp. 46-7.

[15]   Bain, Sitting in Darkness, p. 78.

[16]   Storey and Lichauco, The Conquest of the Philippines, p. 93.

[17] Jones presents this as perception, not necessarily as fact, which points to a failing in his narrative, since readers need to know whether such things did in fact occur.  This failure may itself be significant.  It may reflect an inadequacy of the historical records, or (less likely) Jones’ not having checked them.  But it would be foolish to discount as an explanation the rather fervent ideological wish by so many authors to see the worst about the behavior of “white America” while exhibiting solicitude toward all others.  This has been a feature of American historical writing since long before the “political correctness” associated with multiculturalism.  It arises from the “alienation” that the American artistic-literary-intellectual culture has felt toward virtually all aspects of the American mainstream since as far back as the early nineteenth century.

[18]   Smith was courted martialed on the minor charge of “conduct prejudicial,” was found guilty, and was “admonished” with “no further punishment.”    Faced with possible political embarrassment, Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War Elihu Root caused the War Department to retire Smith.

[19]   Storey and Lichauco, The Conquest of the Philippines, p. 139.

[20]   See Storey and Lichauco, The Conquest of the Philippines, pp. 138-142.

[21]   Mark Twain, “A Defense of General Funston,” North American Review 174 (May 1902), p. 623.